THE WHYS AND WAYS WE WORSHIP

SEPTEMBER 24, 2000
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL


Text: “...To discover how to be living now Is the reason I follow this star.”
-W.H.Auden: from “For the Time Being”

Late last June I flew from Santa Fe into Kansas City where a colleague met me. We traveled to northern Arkansas for four days of trout fishing on the White River - you know the one - where “Whitewater” was once supposed to happen. Many are surprised to learn that, notwithstanding its being in the south, it also happens to be one of our country’s great trout. Each morning the owner of the lodge where we stayed would ask us all to pause for a brief word of thanks before breakfast. He always ended with the same words, “...and we are grateful for the beauty and the freedom of this great land and the ability to serve you, God. Amen.

While there I never seemed to tire of sitting and watching the river each late afternoon. By that time each day it swells to double its size with the release of water through eight giant turbines at the Bull Shoals Dam just two miles north of the lodge. The beauty of the rushing water, the flying birds - eagles, herons, song birds and the occasional fishing launch - make it a continual joy to watch.

One morning soon after arriving here in Norwell I awoke, dressed and went to the kitchen to make coffee. Mug in hand, I stepped out of the back door of the parsonage. Dawn had passed and the sun seemed to be capturing the tops of the trees. Its rays glinted off the deep green of my surroundings and I said to myself, “Wake up, boy. Summer’s over. You’ve got a sermon to write!” But you know, it suddenly became clear to me that I had missed the regularity of being in church. The missing ingredient each time of reverence, praise for this gift of life and breath, family and friends.

Using these experiences as a base then, I want to speak this morning about some of the answers that have occurred to me in addressing the question of why Unitarian Universalists gather for worship at all. My invitation for you to recall similar examples puts us on an even plain of comparison. Our time together, then, becomes one of considering some of the basics of the human activity we call “worship”.

My first memory of a worshipful experience happened when I was about four years old. I had been chosen to be one of the two children to carry the long white train of the Angel Gabriel. It was the annual Childrens’ Christmas Pageant. I still recall the long center aisle of that gothic Universalist Church in Pasadena, California. I remember my wonder at the sound of the choir singing, the people holding their candles, the huge, chancel window with its colorful stained glass towering above the altar. Years later when I returned to the church in which I had been christened it didn’t somehow seem quite as large - but for a four year old.....

You know, it would be hard for me to surmise whether or not that experience had any hold on me in later years when I decided to embark upon a life in ministry, but I surely do remember it as being one of incredible awe for a little boy.

Unitarian Universalist churches often struggle with the word “worship” and what its meaning implies. Some refer to their gatherings as “celebrations”. Sermons become “pulpit presentations”. Hymns are called “songs”. Invocations become “opening words” and benedictions are called “closing words”. The reason?

Frankly, it is because for a goodly number of Unitarian Universalists the word “worship” often causes what one might call “visceral twitches”. Which I believe is unnecessary. The word “worship” comes from a far more ancient term in the Old English idiom called “Woerth-scipe”, meaning “worthship”.

As mentioned in one of my recent columns, the very heart of any religious body is the time it spends in worship together. It is the reason for its being and for its becoming. Take it away and the gathering will soon wither and die. It may continue as some sort of discussion group or debating society structured around any number of honorable reasons. But as a religious entity, one in which its members voluntarily choose to address the depths of the spiritual life, if you take away such a raison d’etre, the institution soon loses its purpose and is for naught.

The church where I was ordained in January of 1960 is a huge brick structure of gothic proportions. Its congregation is very small. But its reason for being is to worship God as a Universalist Trinitarian congregation. Play fun of that if you will. But I assure you that that tiny group are thoroughly committed to their ritual and their communion as being central to their very lives. You can think of scores of examples, I am sure, of more orthodox churches in mainline Protestantism that do the same. The energy that powers their work rises out of their worship together.

One of my favorite definitions of the church describes it as “the repository of Memory and Hope.” Thus, so. Important aspects of worship are just such elements - hope, gratitude, solace, challenge. An our of worship should contain an intentional atmosphere energized by these values. They give shape, meaning and purpose to all. Let us not stop with that. Worship gives expression to what we often take so much for granted - “that with which we have been bestowed” - Life, Food, Shelter, Friends and the Opportunity for Work, Leisure and Service. We feel that sense of Thankfulness that prompts us to want to give something back of ourselves and our plenty in order to respond in some positive way to the urging of the human heart.

In November of 1996 I was close to death, lying on a gurney outside the doors of an operating room trying to mask my fear over that fact that I simply did not know what was happening to me or around me. Strangely, though, the old maxim I’d heard from my youth came to mind. “Underneath all that lives are the Everlasting Arms”.

Calmness then seemed to descend upon me. I grew quiet. I knew I could trust the world of science and the surgical team there to act in my behalf no less than the airplane crews who take me from place to place through the skies. Peace came because I somehow knew that all would be well.

Worship, too, is a way of finding comfort. In our feelings of grief, of loss, pain and disappointment - unavoidable as they are - need to be given expression within the context of a supportive religious community.

So you see, if our religion - or any religion - is going to be of any worth to us, it cannot simply offer peace of mind. One of its calling is to urge the human spirit to higher critical and ethical challenges. There will always be truth to that ancient saying that “The great religions of the world not only comfort the afflicted, they also afflict the comfortable.”

In order, then for the human act of corporate worship to be viable, it must assist us in making reference, not only to the realities of life, but to somehow address the transcendent IN life. Not all is explainable, understandable. There is that which we suspect is not reducible to words. Yet, however inadequate our efforts, we have to try.

There was a book written sometime back titled All I Could Never Be by Beverly Nichols. Let me share a brief passage.

A more practical and down-to-earth view of the “why” of worship was written by the renowned Unitarian minister, Dr. A. Powell Davies. I know it is unwieldily to put two quotations back-to-back in a sermon but I’ve decided in my old age not to care about such things anymore. It is important that you here this, so here goes.

Beverly Nichols and Dr. Davies statements and my experience of that morning time not long back or even my walk down that church aisle at Christmas over 60 years ago are all examples of what has been called the “divine mystery. I am hesitant to use the word “God”, especially as one thinks of it in Old Testament terms - a wrathful, vengeful, jealous, judgmental figure. That concept is dead to us and next week I want to delve a little more deeply into just what it does mean for the likes of us.

Some even reach beyond speaking of the divine mystery. They say that Jesus was God. I recall that story about the juvenile in court whose sentence was to attend a Roman Catholic high school. He became a model student and when his parole officer asked why he had changed so admirably he said, Well, in every room of that school there was a statue of this guy hanging on a cross and suddenly I knew they meant business!

Enough of the “whys” of worship; hope, gratitude, solace, challenge. Let’s turn to the “Ways”. Worship is an art form. It has structure and shape. It has often been called “ritual”. By that we mean words, music, movement, esthetics. Ritual is also repetitive. So many in Unitarian Universalism belittle the repetitive of certain parts of the Sunday morning experience, thinking such activity to be coercive. I do not hold with this. I believe that when we fail to realize how routine, mixed with diversity can bring vitality to our lives in the days that follow it.

If this sounds like I am advocating ritual for its own sake, please know that it is not. Our liberal forms of worship have to be our own, born out of our ideals and the values that we share. There are some basics and some standards that through the ages have assisted humans in creating a vitality to what they observe.

That is why I have spoken to so many of you about how important it is to have a working Worship Committee. We need to monitor our efforts on Sunday mornings to make sure they are serving the congregation’s needs. And we need creative people who want to work on that and even to create new worship experiences in tune with the times. Think about it. It may be that this will be a committee where you might want to put your energy and your creative efforts.

In bringing this message to a close, then, permit me to take you on a brief journey into the “ways” a worship experience might happen in an ideal setting.

First, there is the opening. It is a summons to take the moment seriously. It means we are about to begin worship together. It is not an announcement. It is a call to attentiveness; to reverence; to repose, active repose.

Secondly, there is music, Music expresses the quality of worship as nothing else can do. Good taste is important. What is appropriate for one congregation won’t work for another. But music should not be considered a mere”filler” in the hour; nor should it be regarded as a “performance” as a symphony or solo work in a concert hall might be. It should stand on its own, augmenting the general tone and theme of the day.

This applies to hymns as well. Regardless of theology, some of the music of the ages is immortal. We need not trivialize the experience by being hyper-critical or petty. The music of Bach or Beethoven remains beautiful notwithstanding the words that are sung. And an Appalachian folk hymn is lovely and moving, too.

Another part of the worship experience is what is called “liturgy”. The root meaning of that word is “the work of the people”. There has to be form to the hour; progression from one part element of the service to the other. We don’t go to church to watch. We go to participate. We are not an audience. We are part of the essential business of taking life seriously.

Certain members of the congregation I last served always seemed to feel that they must applaud the musical offering of the morning. Now I don’t usually mind applause during a church service, but in that instance, I usually found myself unable to participate in such activity. It was not because I was not appreciative of the music shared - nothing could be further from the truth. It was precisely the opposite. I chose NOT to applaud BECAUSE I WAS SO MOVED by the music and I wanted to let the artist/musician know that by my grateful silence. But in Santa Fe, it happened every Sunday, no matter what.

How about silence? So many have said to me from time to time that if there was one part of the service (besides the offering) that a church could not do without, it would be that moment of silence that follows the spoken meditation or prayer. And I guess I have to agree. Silence is probably the most appropriate response to the mystery of creation that we could make.

I did mention the offering. It is probably one of the must abused and misunderstood parts of any service. Some Unitarian Universalist churches actually HIDE the collection plate somewhere in the vestibule. This only bothers the treasurer and the parish committee. Actually, though, it is a violation of one of the symbols of our hard-won religious freedom.

People suffered persecution, even giving their lives that today we might have the privilege of attending and publicly supporting the church or synagogue of our choice in effort and in financial terms. An offering is sacramental. It is what gives substance to the people’s willingness to voluntarily support this or that religious society. It is a sacred act, a worshipful event.

Finally, there are the prayers and meditations that focus our shared thoughts. These concepts are so weighty as topics that I will reserve a time in the future to address them separately. The Benediction is the blessing which, actually, are the words to formalize our shared sentiments as we bless each other through the coming week.

The Rev. Dr. Clarence Skinner was, for many years, Dean of Crane Theological Seminary at Tufts University before, in some incredible wrong-headed thinking, it was closed by denominational headquarters in the late 1960’s. He once penned a beautiful description of what we mean as Unitarian Universalists when we speak of worship. Let it be the capstone to this morning’s journey of new understanding.

Worship is awe in the presence of mystery –
It is hope towering the wrecks of hope –
It is the thirst of the scientist for truth –
It is the passion of the artist for supernal beauty –
It is the mountain climber struggling upward toward the windswept peak –
It is the mariner launching his craft on an unknown sea –
It is the lower yearning for the higher –
It is the broken arc seeking the perfect round –
It is the eye seeking far horizons –
It is the wrong seeking the eternal right –
It is the seed pushing toward an unseen sun –
It is a mountain spring rushing toward the sea –
It is the mean and ugly rising toward the sublime –
It is the sensitive ear listening to the music of the spheres –
It is humanity reaching for wider fellowship –
It is the unsurrendered living for victory –
It is chaos striving for unity –
It is the deepest in humankind yearing for the loftiest in the universe.

So, too, may our times together bear out these visions of an ever more effective liberal religious community - here, now and in the days to come.

Amen.